It's a gilded piffle for sure, but one teeming with clever, entertaining bits, executed flawlessly by a gifted company.
"Something Rotten," a fanciful musical comedy about two brothers who invent musical theater in Shakespearean England, is the type of show that thrills devotees of the performing arts. It's studded with references to the musical theater canon — composers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick name-check (or song-check) everything from "A Chorus Line" and "Avenue Q" to "Rent" and "West Side Story."
It also has a lot of double and single entendres (writers store their poems in period-correct codpieces). And this touring production, up through the weekend at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, has one of the original stars of "Rent," Adam Pascal, who plays William Shakespeare as a preening rock star. Part Elvis, part Mick Jagger, Pascal embodies the projected fantasy of writers everywhere, bestowed with fame and lusted after, rather than being holed up in some room by one's lonesome as writers do.
It all adds up to an evening of light, zany fun.
The story, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, is as much about Shakespeare and his thievery of characters and plot lines as it is about musical theater. The Bard rules the theatrical realm in the '90s (the 1590s, that is) and the Bottom brothers, Nick (charismatic and surehanded Rob McClure) and Nigel (dweebily winsome Josh Grisetti), are trying to break in. Nick runs a theater company. Nigel writes poetry and plays. After Nick visits soothsayer Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), he learns that musicals will be a big thing in the future. He also learns the title of what will become Shakespeare's greatest work and decides to stage it as a musical, "Omelette."
There's also a love story involving Nigel and Portia (Autumn Hurlbert, looking and sounding for all the world like Kristin Chenoweth's little sis), who is the daughter of Puritan leader Brother Jeremiah (the wittily ambivalent Scott Cote).
There's practically nothing new or original in "Rotten," whose many puns include one about audience members coming in from Jersey. But the formula works because the jokes are told well. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw ("The Book of Mormon," "Spamalot") knows how to keep us entertained. "Rotten" moves at a smooth clip, with dances that quote contemporary movements.
And, of course, the songs, conducted beautifully by Brian P. Kennedy, are tuneful. From "Welcome to the Renaissance," delivered with relish by the Minstrel (charming Nick Rashad Burroughs) through the showstopping "A Musical," we get to go on a funny journey into the past. "Rotten" feels like some of the shows it quotes, especially "Spamalot." But we could all use a good laugh. And "Rotten" has them in spades.